Photo by Hudson Hintze on Unsplash

The Most Important Leadership Skill

I think a lot about leadership and how to motivate people, and I also often experiment with different approaches. It seems to me that the most important leadership skill, by far, is the ability to motivate and inspire others. As a leader, you’re just one person. One person, on their own, can’t get very much done. It takes a team of people to achieve anything at scale.

But the big problem for a leader is how to get a team of people to do stuff. I’m sure we have all heard or lived through horror stories of the despotic leader who tries to force things to be a certain way. In the process of trying to make a bunch of people do a bunch of things in a particular way, the motivation and inspiration of those people get thrown to the wayside, and what is left is a begrudging slog to a meaningless finish line. This kind of “leadership” leads ultimately to team-member attrition, even if only emotionally; many people are dead on the job. The paradox of leadership is that great things only get achieved when the leader gets out of the way.

Recently, while using a new software feature at work, I noticed how pleasant and effortless it was. I decided to write a note of appreciation on the Slack channel for the team that developed the software. The engineer who did the work responded with, “This just made my day, thank you.” His effort and care was being recognized and appreciated. This is the kind of thing that turbo-charges productivity and creativity. I was able to have this positive effect on another employee without even being his manager or technical lead; I’m just another individual contributor. This is what informal leadership look like.

Another example comes to mind: I read and try to digest the daily updates from the other people on my team and I want them to know that I have read about what they have done and that I appreciate it. These small snippets of text summarize a day’s worth of effort that brings value to me as a shareholder and as a team member. This snippet of text represents value that I had to expend zero effort to obtain. So I engage with the updates: I always at least add a thumbs-up. I might use a different emoji (such as clapping) and possibly add a question about something that was written. I want to learn from these amazing people.

This engagement produced an unexpected reaction from one of my colleagues who works in Finland. He said “I love how Duncan always likes everybody’s status updates! Instant feel-good every time.” It felt really good that my effort to encourage and support him was being recognized and appreciated, and it motivated me to do it more.

Whether you’re a CEO, a vice president, a manager, or an individual contributor, true leadership consists of empowering, encouraging, and inspiring others to reach their full potential. Most of the time, when someone knows that you trust them and value them, they will go out of their way to fulfill that belief. They will lie awake in bed in the middle of the night mulling over technical problems. They will get back online after dinner to add the finishing touches to a project. I know, because I’ve done this myself. This is not motivation to do the bare minimum out of fear; this is the deeply engaged flow of a person who has been fully empowered and entrusted to own a problem and to do the right thing.

On a flight home from New York recently, I read an awesome article in the Wall Street Journal about how, contrary to the typical leader stereotype, the best bosses are truly humble (link at the end of this article). I think this speaks to the same quality that I’ve been highlighting: true humility leads to an organization of people and effort that is not thwarted by the insertion of the idea that what’s happening has anything to do with the leader. The leader is simply facilitating the greatness of the team.

As an engineer, I can tell you that the most valuable engineer is the one who makes herself redundant. She uses creativity to automate-away the grunt work, she dumps her knowledge into documentation and self-explanatory code, and she presents and shares her ideas clearly and freely. She helps and supports others to understand what she has worked so hard to understand herself. Great engineers don’t create a walled expertise-space that they must protect. In the case of layoffs, great engineers are the last ones to be let go, not because they are irreplaceable, but because they don’t make engineering about them. They are not “rock stars.” They move freely through the problem-space while leaving positive change in their wake.

Great leadership has this same quality. The great leader builds and motivates a team to do great things. Increasingly, she is able to leave or to die and the organization will continue to effectively, efficiently, and sustainably produce value. This is the closest we can get to leaving a legacy, to leave the imprints of leadership in others.

When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists. 
Next best is a leader who is loved. 
Next, one who is feared. 
The worst is one who is despised.
If you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy.
The Master doesn’t talk, he acts. 
When his work is done, the people say, “Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!”
 — Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching (paragraph 17), Stephen Mitchell’s translation

The Best Bosses Are Humble Bosses (in The Wall Street Journal)